Essay

Black Christmas

The holidays can be saccharine, stressful, and often lonely, so it’s no wonder many Christmas tales contain a note of malice. The season, it turns out, has much in common with Halloween

From the December 2011 magazine
Artowork Photographed by Jamie HodgeArtwork photographed by Jamie Hodge

Since the Puritan distrust of this great feast day abated, the American people… have taken up Christmas with the same enthusiasm that lately almost buried funerals under a weight of floral tributes.”

The editorial was published in December 1886, in the Manitoba Daily Free Press. Christmas is too commercial, the unnamed editorialist laments. Shopping, he believes, has become the raison d’être of the holiday, which in its present state will be worn out in little more than a decade.

“We readily incline to excess,” he writes, “to an excess that destroys the object we seek.”

Critiques of commercialism are a holiday tradition, as customary as carolling and candy canes. If it’s not commercialism, it’s something else: Santa Claus is the Devil, Santa damages children’s psyches, the pressure to shop for Christmas presents forces men to do what is properly women’s work. Defenders of Christmas include both Christians and non-Christians; or, as the New York Times once put it, “The corruption of Christmas has been roundly decried by everyone, whether they shop at Bloomingdale’s or Wal-Mart.”

Christmas is always about to be corrupted; the faithful are always decrying its corruption.

I myself attempted to corrupt it.

I did it in the name of Halloween.

Merry Christmas!” I yelled. “Merry Christmas!” When I was six, I was an elf. I was in the Santa Claus Parade in Peterborough, Ontario, my hometown. I was standing on the final float, Santa’s float, with the other elves.

The float in front of us was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Jack of Hearts was played by a boy a tad older than me. He was beautiful. I waved to him. During the course of the parade, I developed a crush on him. If it wasn’t my first crush, it was pretty close to it. I didn’t tell anybody about it. I knew there was something monstrous about liking a boy. It made me monstrous.

Halloween was more my style.

I don’t associate homosexuality with Halloween; I do, however, associate my homosexuality with Halloween.

As a boy, I went trick-or-treating as a witch. I went as a skeleton. I was Dracula. Since I felt like a monster, why not be a monster whom others feared?

On my dresser, I had a Dracula model kit. On my bookshelf, I had a werewolf mask, which I kept beside my werewolf books, The Wolfman and The Werewolf of London. A poster of Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, was tacked on my wall. I had read all about him, about the pains he took to distort and disguise his body.

There’s such a thing as loving monsters too much, a family friend once said to my mom while I was around.

If our house was haunted, it was haunted by me.

If I was haunted by Halloween, then my parents were haunted by Christmas. When I was growing up, they ran a small department store in a town near Peterborough. In winter, the store was dead. In summer, it came alive with cottagers and tourists. The fall brought back-to-school shoppers and Halloween. Candy sales soared.

The period between Halloween and Christmas was what mattered most. That’s when we counted on making most of our money. Would it be good? We fretted. We feared. We decorated.

Several times a year, the family would take a shopping trip to a display dealer in Toronto. For Halloween, we bought strangely large spiders and spiderwebs. For Christmas, there were giant glass balls and sparkling Styrofoam snowflakes. Everything scaled to parade float size. We would dress our store’s windows with them. They had a magic effect on customers: they made them sentimental, nostalgic. Made them spend money.

The snowflakes were spiderwebs spray painted white.

Years later, as an adult, I wrote a book called Christmas Days, about the holiday’s history in Canada. It focused on the material culture of the season, the stuff that made Christmas Christmas.

Fake snow, I wrote, had once been created by crushing glass; later, it was made with asbestos. Christmas crackers had once contained enough gunpowder to set fire to a table.

My book was full of fire. Christmas trees lit by candles burned up. Santa Claus costumes made of cheap cotton burned up if a sleeve so much as grazed a candle.

Santa Claus parades were perilous, too. Santa froze on his sleigh. Floats plowed into overpasses and telephone wires. An incorrectly constructed float could trap carbon dioxide in the driver’s cab. An exhaust pipe could become as hot as a blowtorch.

Was I relishing the macabre a bit too much? Probably. I was playing the perverse elf I had been as a boy. I was perverting the holiday. I was Halloweening it. What I was doing was nothing new: making Christmas macabre is a Christmas tradition as old as Santa Claus.

Edinburgh Dungeon is a tourist trap in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, in Scotland. It features a labyrinth, a waxworks torture chamber, and what carnival workers call dark rides: haunted houses or tunnels of love that operate by and large in blackness.

In 2001, the dungeon added a Christmas attraction, Satan’s Grotto. An actor disguised as Satan sat on a throne while Santa Claus boiled in a witch’s cauldron nearby. Santa’s elves were dead, impaled on spikes. Robins roasted on an open fire.

“We don’t mean to offend anyone,” the manager of Satan’s Grotto told the press. “It’s just a bit of welcome relief from something much more scary: the Christmas shopping.”

Who wants to Halloween Christmas?

There are those who find Christmas saccharine. There are those who find it maddeningly maudlin.

There are those for whom Christmas is an endless to-do list of shopping and working. There are those who feel obligated to give gifts to people they despise.

There are those who are lonely at Christmas. There are those for whom Christmas brings back miserable memories of Christmases past. There are those, like me, who hated being dragged to Christmas service at a church full of parishioners who would condemn me and my love for the Jack of Hearts.

The Christmas season bedevils many of us; many of us like to see the season bedevilled back.

Mischief and the macabre are hallmarks of Halloween. At Christmas, they’re unusual and often cruel. Santa Claus bears the brunt of the cruelty. As Christmas’s eminence, he is eminently corruptible, which is why he’s the star of so many sinister stories. In some of the stories, he’s depicted as a monster; in others, he’s a sweet elf who has been supplanted by an imposter, a frightening fraud.

A Trap for Santa Claus, directed by D. W. Griffith in 1909, shows children setting a trap on Christmas Eve. When Santa comes through the window—or rather, when the children’s deadbeat dad comes through the window to rob the house—he’s snared.

In Dr. Seuss’s 1957 storybook How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Santa isn’t Santa; he’s a monster. Dressed in a Santa hat and coat, he steals into houses in Whoville and then steals the presents piled under the Whos’ Christmas trees. A monster has no trouble stealing into houses. What does that say about Santa?

In a 1953 edition of Panic, a comic magazine from the minds behind Mad, Santa is seen sliding down a chimney and into a bear trap set by a surly child. It’s tough to say if he’s an imposter: though he rode in on a sleigh, he’s sporting a beard that has a “100% wool” label stuck to it. Stuck to his sleigh is a sign that says Just Divorced. Dangling from the sleigh: a cleaver, a carving knife, and a garbage can lid.

Sinister Christmas stories always pose these questions: Will Christmas survive? Will we survive Christmas?

In 1993, Tim Burton released his animated movie The Nightmare before Christmas. It tells the tale of Jack Skellington, a skeleton from Halloween Town, who stumbles into Christmas Town and becomes fascinated by it. Desperate to understand the holiday, he spirits Santa Claus to Halloween Town and takes over his yuletide duties. But where Santa once spread fun, Jack only spreads fear and revulsion.

The Nightmare before Christmas is the most famous fable of Halloween corrupting Christmas; it is far from my favourite. Halloween is a time for mischief. Jack Skellington commits his mischief unwittingly. How is that fun?

Halloween is a time for villainy. When Jack Skellington returns to Halloween Town, he reunites with his sweetheart, a glorified rag doll. It’s supposedly romantic.

The film’s music is meretricious. The film itself is a conceptual failure, if instructive. Here’s why: Halloween can be as saccharine as Christmas. And Christmas? It can’t be Halloweened, because it was corrupted by Halloween a long time ago.

In the late 1990s, I went to Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade. I had been to it a bunch of times as a child. It was as I remembered. There were clowns. There were marching bands.

What was new: a haunted house. It was purple and black. A skeletal tree stood beside it. Sounds of screams and clanking chains came from the windows.

It was a float. It was built of wood and lath. The tree was, I don’t know what—a real tree spray painted black? Ringing the house were witches and ghosts, or children in witch and ghost costumes.

Spectators didn’t know what to do. Kids didn’t wave at it. They didn’t cheer. What would they have been cheering for? Nightmares? Parents pooh-poohed it. They didn’t mind garish floats, but a ghoulish float?

I didn’t understand their shock. Halloween bleeds into Christmas; Christmas creeps into Halloween: it’s always been this way. The haunted house is the icon par excellence of this interaction, as it stands at the dead centre of both celebrations, though the forces that infest it have shifted in time.

“The feast of Christ’s nativity is attended with such profaneness, as that it deserves the name of Saturn’s Mass, or of Bacchus his mass, or if you will, the Devil’s Mass…”

So said Increase Mather in 1712. Puritans spurned Christmas. In seventeenth-century New England, it was illegal to celebrate it. Fines were imposed on any persons “found observing any such day as Christmas or the like…” Mather stated that since it could not be proven that Christ was born on December 25, the holiday was a heresy. Celebrating it was blasphemous.

Mather had a point. Christmas celebrations back then looked like Halloween celebrations do today.

There was drunkenness. Revellers marched in mock parades and made as much noise as possible. The poor and the downtrodden knocked on the doors of the wealthy and powerful. They demanded money. They demanded food.

There were costumes. Men dressed as women. Mummers in masks paraded down streets, stopping in at houses to surprise the residents. Some mummers sat in spooky silence, refusing to say who they were. Some mummers put on skits. All mummers expected hospitality, and they received it.

Increase Mather decried the celebration of Christmastide; so, too, did he decry Hallowtide.

All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days—Hallowtide, as they were collectively called—were well established by the end of the twelfth century. The Church decreed that on these days, November 1 and 2, the living would pray for the saints and for the souls of the newly departed.

Halloween, the eve of Hallowtide, was fraught with folk beliefs. It was considered supernatural, a time when nothing separated the underworld from our world—nothing but wind. Goblins gallivanted. Ghosts went about. Witches were abroad. Frightened folks built bonfires to frighten away the forces of evil. Churches in Britain would ring bells. Some churches rang bells all night long.

It is impossible to say what the Puritans thought of Santa Claus; he hadn’t been invented yet.

Clement Clarke Moore was the son of Benjamin Moore, the Episcopalian Bishop of New York. By the 1800s, Episcopalians were celebrating Christmas at church. So, too, were Unitarians. And Methodists. The time of Puritan influence had begun to pass. It had become acceptable to observe Christmas. Since Clement Clarke Moore was upper class, Christmas Day would have entailed church-going and religious reflection.

For the lower classes, the day was different. As a newspaper of the period put it, it entailed roaming “the streets all night, disturbing the slumbers of the weary… by thumping upon tin kettles, sounding penny[whistles] and other martial trumpets.” It was noisy. It was a nuisance. The upper class longed to see misrule ruled out, to see hooliganism replaced by genteel rituals, to see a new conception of Christmas in the United States.

So Moore composed a poem.

In “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” popularly known as “The Night before Christmas,” a father is startled from sleep when St. Nick arrives at his house on Christmas Eve. He watches him slip silently down the chimney and into the drawing room; watches him fill stockings with toys; watches him fly away on his sleigh. The poem was simple enough that parents could recite it to children. It made implicit that Christmas was to be a night for the dreams of children to come true—the silent dreams.

Who was St. Nick? He was a Dutch folk figure. He had been a character in Washington Irving’s 1809 book Knickerbocker’s History of New York, portrayed as “the mythic patron saint of New Amsterdam,” to borrow a phrase from Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas. Irving’s book purported to be a history of New Amsterdam in Dutch olden times, but it was not; Irving depicted St. Nick as an important part of that history, though he was not.

He rode in a saint’s wagon. He smoked a pipe. At one point, he was seen “laying his finger beside his nose,” a gesture akin to a wink. In St. Nicholas, Irving took a minor figure from the past and endowed him with wisdom, wit, goodness, and, most importantly, with cultural importance. Moore nicked St. Nick for “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and turned him into Santa Claus, who would in time turn into a cultural icon, a poetic creation who would seem to have been around forever.

How did Halloween corrupt into this new conception of Christmas? Instead of being an immortal saint, as St. Nicholas had been, Santa Claus was a supernatural creature, an eternal elf who slipped into homes on the same night each year. He was Halloween in Christmas costume.

It’s said that Santa stops at every house in the world; if that’s so, then every house is haunted.

Why do you come, to haunt me thus? ” the actor says. It’s Christmas Eve, 1863. A Christmas play is being performed: The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.

The play is based on the book by Charles Dickens, the fifth of his Christmas-themed titles. It features a miserable man who is visited by a spectre on Christmas Eve.

“I see you in the fire,” the actor declaims. “I hear you in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night!” The actor is playing the haunted man. As he speaks, something appears onstage. Is it light? Is it a man? It is a man made of light: he has a voice, he has a visage; he is visible, but barely. He is see-through.

The play was performed in London. The ghost was the creation of a professor at the Royal Polytechnic Institute, John Henry Pepper. It wasn’t created explicitly for the Dickens play, but the play was the perfect showcase. Using an optical technique he called Pepper’s Ghost, he produced a transparent apparition upon the stage; the ghost acted real, the ghost looked real, and it glowed. Here’s how he did it: mirrors. The image of an actor garbed as a ghost was reflected onto a pane of glass on the stage. The audience didn’t see the glass; they saw a glowing ghost, clanking across the boards, ghost chains clamped to his ghost ankles.

Pepper took his ghost on a theatrical tour of the United States. After seeing a performance, P. T. Barnum stole it for the sideshow he called his museum.

At Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway, patrons paid to see General Tom Thumb, bearded ladies, and tattooed men. He put the ghost on display. So real was it, he claimed, that certain customers shot pistols at it. They missed.

Santa Claus haunts homes at Christmas; Halloween haunts homes in October, and all year round at carnivals. Haunted houses, the sort made for fun and profit, date back to Barnum’s day, and to the birth of the American amusement park. In 1902, the Old Mill ride opened at Sea Lion Park, Coney Island. It looked like a water-driven mill. Water churned by a water wheel wound through a circuit of shallow canals.

Brave riders drifted in boats. The canals carried them through dark tunnels decorated to look like scary caves. Grotesque things greeted them: clown faces, dancing devil dolls, and, sometimes, taxidermal animals.

By 1905, Coney Island was crawling with amusement parks—Steeplechase, Luna Park, Dreamland—and the amusement parks were crawling with dark rides. Hell Gate at Dreamland took boat riders through a series of supernatural grottoes. In 1906, the London Ghost Show was making big money at the nearby Brighton Beach Park. Its secret: Pepper’s Ghost.

In the summer, carnies had Coney Island; come winter, they had Santalands, which is what department and dry goods stores called their toy departments at Christmastime.

In the late nineteenth century, department stores started to hire Santas to staff their Santalands. They found them at the bottom of the showbiz barrel: carnies, clowns, and out-of-work vaudevillians.

The carnies did what carnies do: they put on a ballyhoo. A ballyhoo is a free act intended to draw crowds. Santas did magic tricks. Santas showed off animal acts, bears that played banjos, bears that danced with dogs. Anteaters.

The earliest Santalands looked like the earliest haunted attractions. Santa would stand in a grotto sculpted from papier mâché, or in a cave painted to look like ice. Icicles dangled down. Icicles of cotton and glycerine.

By the Great Depression, stores were advertising Coney Island–style attractions in their stores. Miniature trains carried children through stockrooms painted to depict the North Pole or Candyland. Christmasy content was not a requirement. Simpson’s in Montreal installed a pirate-themed attraction for the holidays. What says Christmas like cutlasses and pantaloons?

The Messmore & Damon Company of New York specialized in papier mâché. Department stores bought their urns, which resembled marble. In the 1910s, the company, consisting of George Harold Messmore and Joseph Damon, found fortune building parade floats. Eaton’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Toronto was a client, as was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

From floats, they turned to Santalands, which they revolutionized. Their mechanized Santas enabled department stores to do away with live acts that better belonged in dime museums.

When they weren’t making Christmas dreams come true, they were scaring the pants off people. At Coney Island, they constructed a History of Torture, in which humanlike mannequins got burned, flogged, and murdered in an iron maiden. They continued to design dark rides well into the 1970s.

I am a member of DAFE, Darkride and Funhouse Enthusiasts. I collect and covet relics from Messmore & Damon’s career. I have a haunted house catalogue of theirs from the late 1960s. For sale: Stunts to decorate a dark ride. Satan “moves his arms and turns his head.” Yours for $595.

The haunted house I saw at the Santa Claus Parade in the 1990s reminded me of a carnival dark ride. It was the design: walls of all different sizes, a rickety roof that sloped here and rose there. It looked like a Whacky Shack by Bill Tracy, the great dark ride designer of the 1960s.

The difference was that in a Bill Tracy ride, riders sit while a car whisks them along their way. At the parade, the ride was whisking by us. Was the street its course? Were the streetcar tracks its tracks? It’s a neat trick. If Santa Claus turns every house into a haunted house, then the haunted house float turns us all into dark ride decor: we’re the skeletons that spring from walls, the vampires that dead-fall from trap doors, the devils that move our arms and turn our heads.

While writing this essay, I spoke to a float builder who had been working for the parade for decades. He remembers haunted house floats from the 1980s and 1990s. Kids hid inside them. They held carved ghosts that were nailed to poles. As the parade proceeded, they stuck the ghosts through the windows and shook them. He told me that there might yet be some ghosts lying around the workshop.

There were plenty of people, he said, who were bothered by those floats, who felt ghosts and goblins didn’t belong.

He told me a story. Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade is always staged on a Sunday. Sometime in the late ’70s, it was held on Sunday, November 1. As parade-goers gathered to greet Santa, Halloween partiers were still straggling home. Jack-o’-lanterns lay smashed on the street. The mayor contacted the parade offices to complain. You can’t have a parade at that time, the mayor said. Halloween is too close. It’s too close.